Nation branding could promote a sense of the international community and prevent countries from following a course of realpolitik at the expense of global harmony.
Jack Yan is founder and CEO of Jack Yan & Associates and president of JY&A Consulting.
Pulling together the strands
The No Logo2 movement, which saw Naomi Klein put together some of the threads that were concerning parties prior to thatthe opposition to NAFTA by Zapatista rebels, for instance; in the west, criticism of ﬁrms like Nike in BBC's Branded in the late 1990sreally took shape in mid-2000, as the book became adopted as a "bible" for anti-globalists.3 Those same protesters same protesters descended upon McDonald's and other symbols of American-led globalization. The author thought that the charges stemmed from issues ranging from nation envy to an absence of ethical branding, rather than any fault of the underlying structure of capitalism.4
This remains the author's view, but the caveats remain plentiful. And the American brand has become an even more urgent inquiry since the United States began its war on terror. The country risks facing isolation, if not at governmental level, then amongst the citizenry of some countries. Talking to young people in the autumn of 2002 for a paper in a special edition of the Journal of Brand Management on corporate social responsibility, there were the usual, expected commonalitiestastes, a sense of duty and volunteer work being among thembut one gulf. Numerous American Generation Yers with whom the author spoke rejected a notion of a borderless world, while their counterparts in New Zealand embraced it.5
This is in contrast to the overall mood of 1990s America, rapidly globalizing, happy to embrace the (commercial) internet as it left the fringes of computer science. The generation, which saw War Games as children, grew up. Down the modem line was the world, as some of the new economy's whizz kids discovered, often in their teens.6
But it does not mean the international community has disappeared, nor does it mean it is some undeﬁnable concept dragged out by the Bush administration to convince the public there is global support for the war on terror.
UN Secretary-General Koﬁ Annan believes the community is there: we are all joined in the pursuit of a better world:7
In the broadest sense, there is a shared vision of a better
world as set out, for example, in the founding charter of the United Nations.
There is a sense of common vulnerability in the face of global warming and the
threat posed by the spread of weapons of mass destruction. There is the framework
of international law, treaties, and human rights conventions. There is equally
a sense of shared opportunity, which is why we build common markets and joint
institutions such as the United Nations. Together, we are stronger.
… The international community does exist. It has an address. It has achievements to its credit. …
The international community remains and is not a ﬁction, but current events show that it could be easy to switch back to what Annan said of the past century:8
For much of the 20th century, the international system was based on division and hard calculations of realpolitik. In the new century, the international community can and must do better. … [T]he world can improve on the last century's dismal record.
With the swing from optimism to pessimism, not that much has changed in the
commercial world. Corporations still report, albeit in modiﬁed form, to investors
who never did much to earn dividends; the eventual consequence, as explained
elsewhere, is a gap between rich and poor.9
There are still no ﬁnancial incentives for corporations to stop polluting,
if pollution prevention is seen as a cost.
Meanwhile, brand image, which can build or sully an organization because of its actions, can and does lead to bottom-line results.10 Brands are more than assets on the balance sheet to be valued by Interbrand and Business Week in annual surveys. Instead, they can collapse a company because the very strengths of a brandits ability to create images based on recall of its symbol or its namecan prove to be its weaknesses. As 2003 begins, who can say that seeing the logotypes of WorldCom or United Airlines leaves them brimming with conﬁdence? How quickly did the Enron "E" symbol fall from grace? Investors can and do desert them.
This simple fact has not really been absorbed by organizations, and that leads to extra problems when it comes to the war on terror, which will be explained.
As the author and others have said before, it is not so much globalization, but the absence of "moral globalization".11 Brand experts will tell you that it is not so much that branding is bad; more the poor practice of branding.12
Indeed, the misunderstanding of branding prevails, while the small number of people actually involved in the ﬁeld, who are not in a sales or strict marketing function, is probably small. It is a dangerous situation, because it is an organization's primary connection to its audiencesbut it explains why so many of them are ﬂying blind. In a proper form, it is absent in corporations that abuse workers or pollute the environment.
Another relatively recent development has been the growth in awareness of nation branding.13 Taking country-of-origin branding to the next step, this topic centres around how a nation itself can become a brand, either uniting citizenry or attracting foreign investment. Slovenia, Chile and Latvia may be on paths to changing international impressions of what they represent, while in the late-twentieth century, Wally Olins highlights in his Trading Identities that Spain was a success story, abandoning Franco for the image of a modern, culturally vibrant country.14
The death of spin in commerce
These developments bring together branding with national image and its antecedent, nation branding. This often relies on the skills learned in the branding of products and services. The lessons are valid, but the question then becomes: has the nation adopted branding, or something that falsely passes for branding?
If a nation adopts the branding behaviours of dull fast-moving consumer goods, or worse, slaps on a branding department and lets it be, then it is no better off. This would have the reverse effect: a department cut off from research communicates to a foreign culture what it independently thinks is best, when the culture has already been disposed against it. Some businesses have already shown this to be a path to failure when failing to integrate branding. For instance, if Chrysler understands branding, then why are its passenger cars largely irrelevant for Europe and the rest of the range lacks cohesiveness? There seems to be no accounting for consumers across the Atlantic, even though Europe is a target market. Yet branding demands that the consumers be accounted for.
This piecemeal method to branding can be the case in international relations, writes Mark Leonard, director of London's Foreign Policy Centre which had published Olins's Trading Identities:15
Joseph S. Nye Jr., dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, has argued that the power of inﬂuence can complement more traditional forms of power based on economic or military clout. Such "soft power," he notes, can rest on the appeal of "one's ideas or the ability to set the agenda in ways that shape the preferences of others." But governments have yet to remold their own diplomatic structures to adapt to this changed environment. Instead, most diplomatic institutions have done little more than bolt on a few new units or recruit a couple of extra staff from NGOschanges that are essentially cosmetic.
Along these lines, there are signs that the United States has not done particularly
well on its nation brand since 9-11.
If Generation Y consumers are anything to go by, then the United States has, for the immediate term, promoted patriotism domestically. It was an admirable, post-September 11 fallback position, uniting a country behind Old Glory, even if selling Chevrolets using the same theme might be a step too far. The President has provided a direction on where he wants to take the country in the war on terror, one which has found agreement with credible men such as George P. Shultz, who had warned America about terrorist cells during his time in government as Secretary of State in the Reagan administration.16 But in this branding era, with cynical consumers, inquiries need to reveal substance. Cynical electoratesLeonard cites an Environics International study that showed that amongst 1,000 people in each of the Group of 20 industrialized and developing countries, only 45 per cent trusted their national governments to work in the best interests of society17are much the same, with access to more information than before.
While Shultz also agrees on the removal of Saddam Hussein from Iraq,18 the US has probably made a mistake in linking the two matters to capitalize on the opinion-poll success of the former. Plain facts about UN Security Council resolutions 687 and 1205 against Iraq may have instead been sufﬁcient, for the world press, citizens and other UN nation statesthere is substance to these, otherwise the normally liberal Washington Post would not be devoting op-ed space to Shultz. The same resolutions were used successfully by President Clinton and can be used successfully by President Bush.
Unless, of course, this is what the US Government wants to happen to sway international (read media) attention from the Israeli-Palestinian conﬂict. If so, it is a risky tactic if the electorate demands transparency.
Meanwhile, in the media, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is trying to link Iraq with Al Qaeda, but the mass media and niche information sources are not accepting his statements without question as they appeal to inquisitive consumers. On the Pentagon's proof of an Iraq-Al Qaeda link, former CIA counter-terrorism chief Vincent M. Cannistraro told The Washington Post, 'They are politicizing intelligence, no question about it,'19 claiming there to be a rift between the government and the intelligence community.
Corporations have had to deal with similar inquiries. They have probably learned from nations in this "identity trade", to borrow Olins's book's term, as they know that they face more questions from the public than before. In some cases, they have been able to mobilize programmes to deal with themand from observation, some of these programmes (H&M answering charges of sweatshop labour in one instance) have overtaken the skills of the best Humphrey Applebys by being based on truth. The best practitioners know that very few things can be kept at bay once there is public fascination, as Enron, Andersen and even Mrs Cherie Blair and thrice-jailed Peter Foster have found out. Better truth than spin, for spin is the ﬁrst cousin of deceit.
First, in commerce, the prevalence of sites such as Corpwatch.org has ensured that information reaches consumers readily.20 The moderate San Francisco-based web site reports on corporate misbehaviours. By being more subtle than No Logo or the New Zealand Green Party (which has been known to send in MPs to join international protests),21 Corpwatch.org has earned itself plenty of respect as it deals with issues relating to climate change and the abuse of commerce by Big Oil or Big Tobacco. People can forward emails from such organizations, or petitions. Some in recent years have targeted Nike and sweatshops. A growing number in 2002 relate to public policy matters, such as preventing war or the stoning of Amina Lawal, the Nigerian woman condemned to death after having a child conceived through adultery.
Secondly, commerce has competition, a contest to win consumers' hearts and minds. Nations now have this additional duty. The war on terror and the preemptive strike on Iraq has opponents in the form of nations. They compete for attention because they realize there is a global community to sell to. Diasporas are very inﬂuential, both targeted by their ethnic homes and import their heritage to their newly adopted nations. This nation marketing can sway whether Jordan and Syria give the US-led coalition bases to mount an attack, or convince Qatar to support one. Similarly, it may go the other way, as Europe and Asia have access to the same global media channels. Marketing wars are won on truth, not cover-ups to disguise how bad a product really is.
What grabbed business headlines in 2002, the US Government parading executives in handcuffs aside, was the hinting of sleaze in business. This was the national mood, ﬁnding corporations, stock prices, banks and accounting ﬁrms the villains. Fortune advised us in September in a cover story, 'You bought. They sold,' indicating how chairmen and CEOs of corporations left the everyday investor out to dry as the bubble burst on Wall Street.22 The in-depth story stopped short of accusations and perhaps revealed little new information. After all, in mid-2000, it was not unwise to get out of stocksthe author's company was advising the same, from a branding context. But its relevance earned the cover spot.
Commercial branding in the late 1990s and early 2000s shows that the underdog has an easier time working against the establishment. McDonald's is not the favourite of some families because they have the choice to go somewhere more personal. Levi Strauss jeans are not the epitome of cool when compared with trendy Diesel, which may be why the American company had to create a discount Signature brand for Wal-mart in October 2002. The United States' mission in branding is to avoid being seen as the international bully, because of this very trend.
Third, it is not enough to sell; there has to be a psychographic alignment with, if not direct involvement by, the consumer. That direct involvement explains why automakers have theme parks: for instance, Volkswagen buyers can go to Autostadt, next to its Wolfsburg headquarters, to collect their car from one of two glass towers in which newly-built vehicles are placed after rolling off the factory ﬂoor. They are no longer consumer goods that appear at retail outlets, but crafted items that come from a factory. While waiting, customers can indulge themselves at the Autostadt theme park, with pavilions for each of the company's brands ranging from Volkswagen to Lamborghini. Over in Crewe, England, Volkswagen's Bentley division promises unprecedented levels of personal contact with the company.23
Branding foreign policy
Branding is recovering from the No Logo era. Many of the attacks on the profession were deserved, even if Klein's writing style partially masked her sincere aims. Advertising, often confused with branding, presented slick images that had little to do with branding. Branding is about understanding consumers' wishes, creating a long-term organizational vision and generating an image based on fact. When any aspect of marketing communications presents a non-truth, then the organization has not branded.
As one step for 2003, participants (including the author) at a retreat at Medinge, Sweden in summer 2002, which will have been followed by the Chief Brand Ofﬁcers' meeting in Amsterdam, the Netherlands by the time this piece is published, drafted a manifesto restating branding's purposes.24 This document was the foundation of the book Beyond Branding, edited by Nicholas Ind, on the "humanization" of the ﬁeld.25
The manifesto is a suitable place to begin brand education, not just at schools but in the branding profession.
Branding, as a profession, has had to come to terms with its attacks. There are corporations that have acknowledged their critics, if not expressly, then circumstantially. Nike has in place various programmes pertaining to workers' rights. While some may regard this as too little, too late, it is a step in the right direction. In June 2002, Volkswagen AG signed a workers' charter 'that gives its 320,000 employees worldwide the same social rights, regardless of where they live and work.' While announced after complaints that there were wage differences between its Mexican and German plants, it preempts potential inquiry about Volkswagen's commitment to employees. Suppliers would be held to Volkswagen standards in time, said the company.26
While neither company implemented its policies in light of the manifesto, the eight "brand truths" outlined therein form an effective checklist for organizations engaged in branding.
To get to a manifesto-friendly stage, an organization must understand its opposition, audience demands and competitive forces before forming a clear vision about its direction. That vision is strategized and operationalized.
The international community has an equivalent of the manifesto. It comes in the form of the United Nations Charter. In the context of international relations, the Charter is not a legal document alone.
Human rights have been enshrined by the UN in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Following the Charter, many countries, including domestic policies within some Security Council members, would fall foul of the minimum requirements.
1. Understand the gap. The ﬁrst step is to understand and acknowledge the gap between desired perception and reality and to begin addressing those issues. It is important to understand one's own citizenry and their demands, which is why Swiss referenda are so tempting a solution. An elected government can use them to gauge its direction, even from a brand theory perspective. But even without them, understanding the electorate is vitalpower comes from it, not the other way around. Yet politicians do not behave like servants of the people; quite the reverse.
That same understanding must apply to the other target audiences. Why are they not being convinced?
Leaﬂets dropped by the US government on Afghanistan after 9-11 and shown by Leonard in his October 2002 Foreign Policy article27 are hard-sell methods, as were ﬁxed-frequency radios tuned to pick up propaganda. These confront the impression that Americanization is bad and there are signs of it everywhere (McDonald's, Starbucks), even if other countries have escaped that wrath with similarly widespread brands (Toyota, Nokia). The battle is to sell an ideal, such a universal vision of the United States that it can easily ﬁnd appeal with an audience. It is not an information war, because the same theory that audiences are predisposed to certain beliefs applies even more so in foreign policy. To get audiences on side, as one does in branding, exceptional research about the target audience is needed. This research must be comprehensive and cannot be emphasized enough.
Instinctively, the research might uncover such internationally accepted values as freedom (not something that curtailing civil liberties and encouraging wiretapping, proﬁling and restrictions on movement seem compatible with); and the ability for the best minds to realize their highest potentials by conceiving those innovations that have driven the American economy (at odds with discouraging those best minds from considering the United States as a home, the reduction of innovation in favour of protectionism).28
2. Check the vision. That vision can then be formed and its strategy checked against the UN Charter. Do this brand and communication strategies comply? How might the audience interpret them, based on the earlier research? Are there places where the strategy offends the Charter?
The Charter is one of the strongest, best-authored documents in public international law; the preamble alone should be memorable to those who participate in the UN dialogue. Because it purports to be universal, as is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that should also form part of this analysis, the United States would do wisely to see if its current methods work. Opposition suggests the country can do better. We have not trusted the government to level with constituents, so trust needs to be rebuilt through branding.
Perhaps these questions can be posed: does this further the cause of an international community, because that is what every nation should ultimately be working toward? Are we analysing a régime to the basic standard of innocent till proved guilty? But most importantly, in view of today's international community, are our actions conscionable in the furthering of a better world?
The Charter and the Universal Declaration are as close to truths in international relations as one can get. Their relevance in not only international law but the foundation of the international community suggests they are living documents, possessing a conscience that must not be offended.
Therefore, aligning strategies with them in the context of nation branding and diplomacy would be an invaluable process.
If this does not happen, then the brand becomes tarnished, alliances fall and efforts using it failjust as they would in business when the brand "attitude" is assaulted. Enron, which had awards or policies on climate change and anti-corruption, is a prime example.29
If a nation fell short, how can it be ﬁxed? It is through this that a state can rise above inquiry, dealing with reasoned criticism and the risk of anti-state emails and other communications. It addresses the Zeitgeist, which sees people demanding transparency not only from their companies, but their countries. Everything from Gore v. Bush and Bush v. Gore to releasing evidence about Al-Qaeda could have been managed better without compromising some sources, but too much remains steeped in legal or political jargon. America is sick of politickingthe low voter-turnout rate is a strong sign.
3. Get them involved. Direct involvement is valuable. The earlier research aside, this involvement can be used to gauge how the public feels about the implementation of the branding programme and whether there are changes to make to the earlier stages. If research is done well, this "tracking study" should validate the vision and strategy.
In international politics, such sophisticated involvement can become as an exercise in democracy, but for the right decisions to be made, people need honest information. Just as they do when selecting products to buy. It presupposes an excellent educational system in which values, awareness and responsibility are paramount.
So how were the communications to the publics? Has the audience moved closer to the desired perception? Beyond the electorate, how about other governmentshave we addressed what they thought was wrong about us? For if the 21st-century world is to move forward, it must do so with cooperation, trust and transparency:30
Nurturing relations between politicians of different countries makes diplomacy easier by giving both sides a clear idea of the political positioning of the other. Second, such relationships open a channel for policy exchange that renews the intellectual capital of political parties. Third, exchanges help develop an international outlook within parties that are not in power, which can be advantageous in smoothing the transitions between administrations.
The potential for this involvement is great. When analysing one's own constituents, online technologies could be employed. This leads to an inevitable, rhetorical question: if consumers can become more involved via the internet and inﬂuence product development programmes, can voters sway policy through electronic means where their say has some binding, legal effect? It is a mere, quantum leap from the idea of binding Swiss referendabut that may be a long-term aim.
The nation brand in international relations: parting ideas
As with branding in commerce, the use of branding principles in the realm of international relations must not fall into the same traps.
First, any such programme must be tied to a comprehensive nation branding system. Secondly, this must be top-driven. It must exhibit cooperation between departments, be properly resourced and possess commitment from the state. Thirdly, it must be participative, building upon democratic notions and taking them further. If there is a threat to current western democracies, it will not come from new ideologies, but grass-roots parties that claim to act as the servants of the people, rather than their overlords. This essential truthlistening, then acting, on the electorate's wishesis conceivably why the New Zealand Green Party has won more support amongst the cynical 19- and 20-year-old voter than the major two parties.31
More often than not, nation branding is done half-heartedly because there is no clear authority or budget. In 21st-century international relations, there is little excuse not to practise it and to provide adequate resources. The United States, meanwhile, would be wise to take a lead in addressing its critics using internationally recognized conventions and understanding its audiences. It has a melting-pot population which provide it with an advantage in proper nation branding, something that some corporations themselves have been slow to realize. Winning hearts and minds with the truth is compelling; it could bring not only one's own nationals on side, but alliance partners in the form of nation states.
With superpower status comes superpower responsibility to take a lead, to legitimize the UN Charter and Security Council declarations under which it, and other nations who are UN members, operate. The tools are present in branding, ready to be used for both introspection and external communication.
Ignoring these concepts does the international community, something cited by every administration in addition to Koﬁ Annan's comments, no favours. It would be hypocritical (or worse) to go against its conscience through spin or unwarranted action; it would offend the value we place on human life and basic rights to resort to realpolitik at the expense of everything else.